Climbing on the towers of Notre-Dame cathedral is a must-to-do thing when visiting monuments in Paris. At the heart of Paris on the Île de la Cité, the majestic and elegant Gothic cathedral lets visitors to reach the Chimera gallery and the top of the South tower. You’ll love the breathtaking views over the city and the company of eerie beasts. We went up there many times… my last visit took place on a sunny February day. Follow the guide!
Update: April 15. 2019 – A fire broke out at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and spread rapidly across the building. Within a few hours the spire and roofs sadly collapsed. Fortunately the towers of Notre-Dame were spared by the tragic incident.
As you can imagine, this article was written before the Great Fire of April 2019. We hope it will serve as a beautiful testimony of the lost splendour of Notre-Dame… As I’m updating these lines, we can only wish the historic sanctuary will be restored in the state it was before the fire, and yes with the restauration of Viollet-le-Duc’s iconic spire!
The towers of Notre-Dame cathedral
The construction of the Gothic cathedral started in 1163 during the Middle Ages. Bishop Maurice de Sully laid the first stone of what is today one of Paris’ most famous monuments. It took almost 200 years to complete the sanctuary. Notre-Dame became a prototype of Gothic cathedrals in Europe.
The western façade of Notre-Dame dates back to the 13th century. Completion of the North Tower took place in 1240 and the South Tower in 1250. In the 19th century, architect Viollet-le-Duc undertook a great restoration of the cathedral.
Enter the towers of Notre-Dame from rue du Cloître Notre-Dame
From the entrance on the rue du Cloître Notre-Dame (4th arrondissement), the ascent to the upper parts of the cathedral’s western façade takes place in different stages.
- From the upper room of the north tower
- to the Chimera gallery, and finally
- to the top of the south tower.
There are exactly 387 steps (and no lift/elevator) to the top of the South Tower. All of them in spiral staircases.
The South and North Towers of Notre-Dame rise at an altitude of 69 metres. This is much lower than the spire at the crossing of the transept (96 m).
The entrance and the upper room of the North Tower
The entrance to the towers of Notre-Dame is located on Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. This is just a few metres from the Place du Parvis (recently renamed Place Jean-Paul II).
The lower part of the tower is hardly decorated and has the rather austere appearance of a fortress.
Each bell tower is flanked by a polygonal turret pierced by loopholes that houses a spiral staircase which is used by the visitors.
My first advice: make sure you do not arrive too late in the morning or in the afternoon. On sunny days, the queue can be much longer than the one we came into. In winter, the ascent to the towers opens at 10am and we arrived at 9.45am – only 10 people were already queueing in front of us.
My second advice: But the good news is that you can book a tour of the cathedral that includes the ascent to the towers. This way you’ll skip the (long) queue and learn more about Notre-Dame from a fully licensed, English-speaking guide. => Book your visit! <=
? Unfortunately my advice are no longer apply… at least not before the end of the restoration works that could take years!
Up the upper room!
We started the visit by a short walk up the spiral staircase leads to the upper room of the North Tower. Situated at the same level as the organ gallery, the Gothic room features a fine eight action rib-vaulted ceiling. This is where the ticket counters and souvenir shop are found. Behind them, a little spiral staircase rises inside an openwork turret.
The Chimera Gallery
From the top of their balustrades, the chimeras and other gargoyles of Notre-Dame have watched over Paris while the city goes about its business.
The Chimera gallery (Galerie des Chimères) is arguably the most interesting feature to observe during the visit – apart from the spectacular views it offers over Paris. Situated 46 metres above the parvis, the gallery sits atop the colonnaded gallery. It links the north to the north towers by a series of balustrades. There are found the mysterious and eerie beasts known in French as ‘Les Chimères‘. The grotesque Chimera include all sorts of mythical and fantastic creatures: birds, beasts, half-human-half-beasts, monsters, all watching the people below and scanning all of Paris.
A recent addition…
Although they look like they have been sitting there since the Middle-Ages, the stone chimera are in fact a recent addition by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. The French architect was responsible for the restorations of the cathedral in the 19th century. They are part of a controversial restoration program which was initiated by the architect in 1845 and completed 25 years later.
Meet the two most-famous Chimera of Notre-Dame
One of the first chimera we encountered was the famous Stryge, a pensive horned creature.
Another famous Chimera is the goat-shaped one which looks out over the city of Paris and the Eiffel Tower:
The old friend was photographed against the light… here is another photo we took a few years ago revealing his face:
The Chimera seen from the ground
Viewed from the ground, the Chimera look even more terrifying and with binoculars you will see more of them than when on the Chimera Galley (photos taken before the ascent):
The rich decoration of the Chimera Gallery
The decoration added by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century is very rich. Aside from the chimera, it features gargoyles, finials, sophisticated arcatures, tracery parapets crockets.
Gargoyles of the North and South Towers of Notre-Dame
From the gallery can be seen other gargoyles perched from the North and South Towers (it is best to have a binocular to observe each little detail). These decorated waterspouts should not be confused with chimera as they are designed to convey water from a roof and away from the side of the cathedral:
My book recommendation!
Its name? Simply:
Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting by Rolf Toman, Publisher: Ullmann
This book has been for me a great resource that helped me better understand the Gothic movement in art from the 12th century to the Renaissance. An architectural style that first originated from France and spread all over Europe.
Over 500 pages it focuses on the development of Gothic architecture with many illustrations and photographs, but not only. I’ve also found interesting the in-depth discussion of the most diverse art forms, including painting, sculpture, metalwork and even book illumination! It also includes specific coverage of the Cathars’ Heresy and the Papal Palace in Avignon. And, of course, it mentions the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris!
This is definitely the book I recommend if – like me – you love everything about Gothic such as churches, gargoyles, stained glass, flying buttresses and so much more.
The view over Paris from the Chimera Gallery
The view over the roofs of Paris from the Chimera gallery is breathtaking. From the north to the south towers, the vista reveals most of the monuments of Paris: Sacré-Cœur of Montmartre, the City-Hall of Paris, the St. Jacques Tower, the whole Île de la Cité including the Sainte-Chapelle and the Palace of Justice, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe echoed by the Grande Arche de la Défense in the far distance, the bridges spanning River Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the neighbourhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Montparnasse Tower.
Photos of the view!
The Place du Châtelet, St. Eustache Church, St. Jacques Tower and Sacré-Cœur in the distance.
Views of Montmartre!
The hill of Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur basilica:
The Sacré-Cœur basilica and St. Jacques Tower:
Close up on the Sainte-Chapelle:
The dome of the Tribunal de Commerce on Île de la Cité and the Opéra Garnier in the background:
The River Seine, the Grand-Palais, the Arc de Triomphe and the CBD of La Défense:
St. Sulpice Church in the 6th arrondissement:
The roofs of Paris in the neighbourhood of St. Séverin-St. Nicolas Church (5th arrondissement):
The picturesque Rue Saint-Julien next to the old church of St. Julien-le-Pauvre:
The dark-looking Montparnasse Tower (from its top terrace it has a great view back to Notre-Dame!):
Looking down at the bride and the bridegroom from the Chimera Gallery:
To the top of the South Tower
The top of the South Tower is the best place to enjoy a 360 degree view over the whole of Paris. The view is spectacular and embraces the River Seine and its many bridges and banks (listed as World Heritage by Unesco).
The top of the North Tower which is not accessible by the public:
The Louvre and the green roof of La Madeleine Church:
The Louvre and the Ferris Wheel and Obelisk of Place de la Concorde:
Views of the Seine!
The little dome of the Institut de France and the bridges of River Seine:
Looking to the West to La Défense:
Sainte-Clotilde basilica, the Palais de Chaillot (Trocadéro) and in the distance Mont Valérien in Suresnes:
The view towards the Eiffel Tower beyond the 6th and 7th arrondissement:
The church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the gilded dome of Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower:
The Rue Saint-Julien in the 5th arrondissement:
The façades of Rue Saint-Julien:
Practical info about the towers of Notre-Dame!
Our advice is to climb the towers of Notre-Dame in the morning when the sun lights up the western part of Paris and most of the city’s monuments.
?? As I wrote above you can book a tour of the cathedral that includes the ascent to the towers. This way you’ll skip the (long) queue AND learn more about Notre-Dame from a fully licensed, English-speaking guide. => Click on this link to book your visit! <=
?? If you can’t climb to the towers (remember there’s no lift!) and still want to visit the cathedral, you can book an English-speaking visit through this link.
>> ATTENTION! Due to the Great Fire of April 2019 all access to the towers is closed. It might take several years of restoration work before the public can get access to the towers of Notre-Dame. <<
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